Physician – proof thyself

So I’m into week two of ‘the Beginning’ and I’m glad to say a few good people have been taking the time not only to read my blog from last week, but to let me know where I’ve missed a word, dropped a comma or spilled some apostrophes. Whoops – no big deal though, eh? Not like I’m selling myself as an eagle-eyed proofer and professional grammar despot. Oh wait.

Like a doctor who smokes, an architect with an unfinished house, or one of those terrifyingly made-up people in department stores who try to convince you to buy four tons of cosmetic equipment, it’s a bit worrying for a copy editor and proof reader to be sending imperfect products out into the world. However, the people who have kindly pointed out these mistakes are those who also proofread as part of their job. They all said how hard it is it proof your own work, and asked me not to take the comments as a criticism or a challenge.

For any writer-of-things, it’s difficult not to take personally the comments made by others, not to interpret an attempt by another to improve your work as an implicit condemnation. When you have put yourself forward as a ‘writer’ or a ‘proofreader’, the pressure is on for your work to back up that claim. Receiving anything but the highest praise can not only be demoralizing, but can make you feel like a fraud. I know, I know, I missed an apostrophe from ‘its’ but honestly, normally I’m really good at these things! Take my word, not my work for it…

When editing or tutoring creative writers, there is a similarly difficult line to walk, wherein you must give guidance, flag possible pitfalls, but also maintain a relationship of what is, essentially, equality. This will allow your comments and suggestions to be taken and absorbed as inevitable and positive next steps towards an improved draft, and not to indicate that it is a bad draft. Any draft can be made better, and of course you can’t see how just yet – if you could you would have done it already. The people who advised me on my commas have both said ‘I proofread all the time as part of my job, and I cannot do it effectively to my own work’.

And if it is hard to proof your own work as a proofreader, what hope for those who aren’t? I spent fifteen minutes writing my blog for last week (I really needed to leave to get a train, please don’t take it personally) and I still couldn’t see the would for the tree’s. Now imagine you have worked on the same piece of work for fifteen months, not fifteen minutes; that you have been playing with that same eighty-thousand words in one order or another for three years. So, contrary as I am, I have realised that in pointing out proofing flaws in my own work, these friends have also given me more faith in my business model: needing a proofreader isn’t about needing to correct your (many) mistakes, there is no shame in getting a proofreader to look at your work - it’s a legitimate and necessary part of the creative or academic process.

Getting a friend to look over something (which I did, even for my short blog last week) doesn’t always fit the bill. They, like you, will be too invested in the work, trying to digest the contents or even looking to have something to say to you about it. Another barrier, of course, is with a thesis of eighty-thousand words, getting friends who like you enough to really pay attention throughout, or even give it a go in the first place, is not always easy. Someone with a clear remit, the time, experience and a detached and professional approach, will be able to review your words in a very different way. And you wont have to help them move house in exchange.

The greatest academics can’t see it when they have used ‘form’ when they meant ‘from’, the greatest writers can’t see a dud paragraph that doesn’t work. There is a very real place in the world for people who can look and see what is there, not what they are expected to see. But even those people will have to employ other eyes to do the same for their original work. I will repeat the reassuring words of those who have highlighted my own mistakes – it’s not a criticism, it’s bloody hard to see these things.

Take it from me, a professional proofreader: I make loads of mistakes – employ me.


*with thanks to Pauline Fleming and Oliver Scanlan for checking this through.